1938: Yakov Peters, Siege of Sidney Street survivor

1 comment April 25th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1938, a Soviet purge claimed (among others*) Yakov (Jacob) Peters, former Cheka executioner and once the subject of a headline-grabbing trial in England.

Peters was a trusted (and ruthless) operator in the Soviet internal police from the start of the Revolution: he helped interrogate Lenin‘s would-be assassin Fanya Kaplan in 1918.

And he was the guy Trotsky had on speed-dial when Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky was arrested by the Left SRs during their abortive 1918 uprising against their erstwhile revolutionary allies, the Bolsheviks.**

Dzerzhinsky was disarmed and locked in a room. his assistant, M.I. Latsis, was captured in the Cheka Lubianka headquarters. “No point in taking him anywhere, put this scum against the wall!” shouted a sailor, but one of the leaders, Alexandrovich, intervened, saying, “There is no need to kill, comrades; arrest him, but do not kill.” Dzerzhinsky’s assistant Yakov Peters was urgently summoned by Trotsky, who ordered him to crush the uprising by attacking the Left Eser headquarters. Alexandrovich was caught at a railway station, and Latsis, whom he had saved from execution, personally shot him. Mass executions in Cheka prisons followed. (Source)

Like a lot of old Bolsheviks, Peters’s early service to the cause didn’t age too well. He ran afoul of some bureaucratic intrigue or point of party discipline or other and caught a bullet in 1938. (Khrushchev rehabilitated him.)

For anyone in England watching the fate of this distant apparatchik, the proximity to bloodbaths would have had a familiar hue.

Peters was one of a gang of Latvian revolutionaries who came to cinematic public attention in London when, in the course of being rounded up for a December 1910 murder, they engaged the police in a stupendous East End firefight on January 2, 1911 — the Siege of Sidney Street. (It’s also known as the Battle of Stepney.)

Armed like soldiery, the Latvians easily outgunned the bobbies who had them hemmed into a cul-de-sac, and they fired on John Law with ruthless effect. This necessitated a call to the Scots Guard — whose deployment was okayed by Home Secretary Winston Churchill, the latter captured on film that day awkwardly milling about the scene of the urban combat.


(Translated directly to the city’s cinemas as soon as that same evening, Churchill’s image came in for public catcalls owing to his support for a relatively open immigration policy for eastern Europeans.)

This incident was a landmark in crime, policing, media — recognizably modern in its trappings of nefarious immigrant terrorists, politicized state funerals for policemen, and of course, the live-on-the-scenes camera work.

Since Britain was a ready hand with the noose at this time, one might think an execution would have been just the denouement.

However, responsibility for the policememen slain in the affray had been officially assigned to a different gang member, George Gardstein — who was killed when the besieged house burned down — and there was little usable evidence against those who were finally put on trial for the gang’s various crimes. Most of the witnesses were dead, fled, or completely unreliable, so the surviving Latvians all walked.

(Since the identity of one of the first guys to start shooting when the police rang always remained murky, there are some theories — such as in this out-of-print book — that Peters himself had been one of the gunmen on-site, and/or that he could be identified with the absconded and never-captured gang leader “Peter the Painter”.)

Whatever the exact measure of blood on Yakov Peters’s hands from Sidney Street, there would be a lot more where it came from.

While Peters went off to his different fate in revolutionary Russia, the dramatic scene he left behind has naturally attracted continuing retrospective attention in England. The testimony of witnesses, who also recollect the shootout’s anti-immigrant fallout, is preserved in this BBC Witness radio program:

[audio:http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/worldservice/witness/witness_20110127-0950a.mp3]

And, on this BBC Four television special:

* e.g., Russian Civil War officer Nikolay Gikalo and Romanian Jewish revolutionary Leon Lichtblau.

** And in favor of resuming Russia’s ruinous involvement in World War I!

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Unspecified year: Snowball’s animal fifth column

2 comments April 10th, 2011 Headsman

“Four days” after an unspecified “early spring” date in George Orwell’s classic allegory of Soviet communism, Animal Farm, a show trial and mass execution of animals purporting to work for the book’s Trotsky figure signals the titular farm’s unmistakable collapse into dystopia.

In the book, a revolution of animals displaces the farm’s human owner, Jones — the hated ruler of the ancien regime.

The farm’s early cooperative elan soon shatters, with a pig bearing the unsubtle name of Napoleon becoming the revolution’s autocrat, and fostering a paranoid security climate against phantasmal plots by his fellow swine and onetime comrade, the exiled Snowball.

Let’s watch.

Napoleon ordered all the animals to assemble in the yard. When they were all gathered together, Napoleon emerged from the farmhouse, wearing both his medals (for he had recently awarded himself “Animal Hero, First Class”, and “Animal Hero, Second Class”), with his nine huge dogs frisking round him and uttering growls that sent shivers down all the animals’ spines. They all cowered silently in their places, seeming to know in advance that some terrible thing was about to happen.

Napoleon stood sternly surveying his audience; then he uttered a high-pitched whimper. Immediately the dogs bounded forward, seized four of the pigs by the ear and dragged them, squealing with pain and terror, to Napoleon’s feet.0 …

The four pigs waited, trembling, with guilt written on every line of their countenances. Napoleon now called upon them to confess their crimes. … Without any further prompting they confessed that they had been secretly in touch with Snowball ever since his expulsion, that they had collaborated with him in destroying the windmill, and that they had entered into an agreement with him to hand over Animal Farm to Mr. Frederick. They added that Snowball had privately admitted to them that he had been Jones’s secret agent for years past. When they had finished their confession, the dogs promptly tore their throats out, and in a terrible voice Napoleon demanded whether any other animal had anything to confess.

The three hens who had been the ringleaders in the attempted rebellion over the eggs now came forward and stated that Snowball had appeared to them in a dream and incited them to disobey Napoleon’s orders. They, too, were slaughtered. Then a goose came forward and confessed to having secreted six ears of corn during the last year’s harvest and eaten them in the night. Then a sheep confessed to having urinated in the drinking pool — urged to do this, so she said, by Snowball — and two other sheep confessed to having murdered an old ram, an especially devoted follower of Napoleon, by chasing him round and round a bonfire when he was suffering from a cough. They were all slain on the spot. And so the tale of confessions and executions went on, until there was a pile of corpses lying before Napoleon’s feet and the air was heavy with the smell of blood, which had been unknown there since the expulsion of Jones.

When it was all over, the remaining animals, except for the pigs and dogs, crept away in a body. They were shaken and miserable. They did not know which was more shocking — the treachery of the animals who had leagued themselves with Snowball, or the cruel retribution they had just witnessed. In the old days there had often been scenes of bloodshed equally terrible, but it seemed to all of them that it was far worse now that it was happening among themselves. Since Jones had left the farm, until today, no animal had killed another animal.

Animal Farm was published in 1945. In this 1954 British animated feature, the downer of an ending — with the corrupt pig rulers becoming literally indistinguishable from people — was dumped in favor of an ending where the animals revolt again.

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1940: Robert Indrikovich Eikhe, “believing in the truth of Party policy as I have believed in it during my whole life”

1 comment February 4th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1940, the former Soviet People’s Commissar for Agriculture was shot for treason.

The 1930’s were a scary time in the USSR, but the agricultural posts — forced collectivizations, production quotas, and screw-ups that starved thousands — were particularly fraught.

R.I. Eikhe inherited the job from a fellow purged in the trial of the 21. And, unsurprisingly, he went the same way.

It was another former agricultural commissar (of Ukraine), Nikita Khrushchev, who managed to succeed Stalin.

When, in 1956, Khrushchev made his “secret speech” denouncing the savagery of his predecessor, the fate of his old comrade Eikhe was lamented in detail.

Excerpted below is the relevant portion of Khrushchev’s report, as cited here.


The great modesty of the genius of the revolution, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, is known. Lenin had always stressed the role of the people as the creator of history, the directing and organizational role of the party as a living and creative organism, and also the role of the central committee.

Lenin never imposed by force his views upon his coworkers. He tried to convince; he patiently explained his opinions to others. Lenin always diligently observed that the norms of party life were realized, that the party statute was enforced, that the party congresses and the plenary sessions of the central committee took place at the proper intervals.

In addition to the great accomplishments of V. I. Lenin for the victory of the working class and of the working peasants, for the victory of our party and for the application of the ideas of scientific communism to life, his acute mind expressed itself also in this that lie detected in Stalin in time those negative characteristics which resulted later in grave consequences. Fearing the future fate of the party and of the Soviet nation, V.I. Lenin made a completely correct characterization of Stalin, pointing out that it was necessary to consider the question of transferring Stalin from the position of Secretary General because of the fact that Stalin is excessively rude, that he does not have a proper attitude toward his comrades, that lie is capricious, and abuses his power. . . .

Vladimir Ilyich said:

“Stalin is excessively rude, and this defect, which can be freely tolerated in our midst and in contacts among us Communists, becomes a defect which cannot be tolerated in one holding the position of the Secretary General. Because of this, I propose that the comrades consider the method by which Stalin would be removed from this position and by which another man would be selected for it, a man, who above all , would differ from Stalin in only one quality, namely, greater tolerance, greater loyalty, greater kindness, and more considerate attitude toward the comrades, a less capricious temper, etc.”

As later events have proven, Lenin’s anxiety was justified …

Stalin originated the concept enemy of the people. This term automatically rendered it unnecessary that the ideological errors of a man or men engaged in a controversy be proven; this term made possible the usage of the most cruel repression, violating all norms of revolutionary legality, against anyone who in any way disagreed with Stalin, against those who were only suspected of hostile intent, against those who had bad reputations. This concept, enemy of the people, actually eliminated the possibility of any kind of ideological fight or the making of one’s views known on this or that issue, even those of a practical character. In the main, and in actuality, the only proof of guilt used, against all norms of current legal science, was the confession of the accused himself, and, as subsequent probing proved, confessions were acquired through physical pressures against the accused. . . .

Lenin used severe methods only in the most necessary cases, when the exploiting classes were still in existence and were vigorously opposing the revolution, when the struggle for survival was decidedly assuming the sharpest forms, even including a civil war.

Stalin, on the other hand, used extreme methods and mass repressions at a time when the revolution was already victorious, when the Soviet state was strengthened, when the exploiting classes were already liquidated, and Socialist relations were rooted solidly in all phases of national economy, when our party was politically consolidated and had strengthened itself both numerically and ideologically. It is clear that here Stalin showed in a whole series of cases his intolerance, his brutality, and his abuse of power.

Stalin’s willfulness vis-a-vis the party and its central committee became fully evident after the 17th party congress, which took place in 1934. . . .

It was determined that of the 139 members and candidates of the party’s Central Committee who were elected at the 17th congress, 98 persons, that is, 70 percent, were arrested and shot (mostly in 1937-38). [Indignation in the hall.] . . .

The majority of the Central Committee members and candidates elected at the 17th congress and arrested in 1937-38 were expelled from the party illegally through the brutal abuse of the party statute, because the question of their expulsion was never studied at the Central Committee plenum.

Now when the cases of some of these so-called spies and saboteurs were examined it was found that all their cases were fabricated. Confessions of guilt of many- arrested and charged with enemy activity were gained with the help of cruel and inhuman tortures. . . .

An example of vile provocation of odious falsification and of criminal violation of revolutionary legality is the case of the former candidate for the central committee political bureau, one of the most eminent workers of the party and of the Soviet Government, Comrade Eikhe, who was a party member since 1905. [Commotion in the hall.]

Comrade Eikhe was arrested on April 29, 1938, on the basis of slanderous materials, without the sanction of the prosecutor of the USSR, which was finally received 15 months after the arrest.

Investigation of Eikhe’s case was made in a manner which most brutally violated Soviet legality and was accompanied by willfulness and falsification.

Eikhe was forced under torture to sign ahead of time a protocol of his confession prepared by the investigative judges, in which he and several other eminent party workers were accused of anti-Soviet activity.

On October 1, 1939, Eikhe sent his declaration to Stalin in which be categorically denied his guilt and asked for an examination of his case. In the declaration he wrote:

“There is no more bitter misery than to sit In the jail of a government for which I have always fought.”

On February 2, 1940, Eikhe was brought before the court. Here he did not confess any guilt and said as follows:

“In all the so-called confessions of mine there is not one letter written by me with the exception of my signatures under the protocols which were forced from me. I have made my confession under pressure from the investigative judge who from the time of my arrest tormented me. After that I began to write all this nonsense. The most important thing for me is to tell the court, the party and Stalin that I am not guilty. I have never been guilty of any conspiracy. I will die believing in the truth of party policy as I have believed in it during my whole life.”

On February 4 Eikhe was shot. [Indignation in the hall.] It has been definitely established now that Eikhe’s case was fabricated; he has been posthumously rehabilitated.

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1941: Twenty Red Army officers

Add comment October 28th, 2010 Headsman




Top to bottom: Proskurov, Rychagov, Shtern, and Smushkevich.

“Quantity has a quality all its own.”

-Stalin

The aphoristic Uncle Joe doomed Soviet officers in both quantity and quality on this date in 1941, shooting 20 Soviet officers at the very moment when Mother Russia could have used them most.

This wouldn’t seem like the ideal time for a purge, but old habits are hard to break.

As the Wehrmacht closed in on Moscow, these prisoners had been evacuated to the Volga city of Kuybyshev (today, Samara). In this, they were already treated more courteously than some.

But any semblance of consideration for these fallen brass — to say nothing of bourgeois indulgences like due process — went out the window when an order arrived from Lavrenty Beria:

“Investigation to be stopped, all to be executed by firing squad without delay.”

They were.

Those “all” included:

Many of this day’s victims were rehabilitated after Stalin fell.

Cold comfort, perhaps, but for their survivors there was bloodier satisfaction: the personal order Beria gave to execute them was in turn used against Beria when he was purged.

It’s a bit tangential, but here‘s an interesting interview with one of their contemporaries in Soviet combat aviation, who managed to survive those terrible years (despite being “taken out to be shot on three occasions” while a POW in Spain). There are some pictures of the planes these men would have used in this thread of a Spanish-language military forum.

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1950: The Leningrad Affair “culprits”

1 comment October 1st, 2010 Headsman

Fifty-nine minutes after midnight on this date in 1950, five Soviet cadres were condemned to death in a secret trial on trumped-up charges of treason in one of Stalin’s party purges. An hour later, they were shot.

The “Leningrad Affair” saw Uncle Joe — with the urging of other henchmen jockeying for the imminent post-Stalin succession — liquidate the excessively independent leaders of Russia’s other capital.

During the late World War, the “hero city” Leningrad withstood a withering 28-month Nazi siege stretching from the very first weeks of war into 1944.

In those days there was something in a man’s face which told you that he would die within the next twenty-four hours …

I shall always remember how I’d walk every day from my house near the Tauris Garden to my work in the centre of the city, a matter of two or three kilometres. I’d walk for a-while, and then sit down for a rest. Many a time I saw a man suddenly collapse on the snow. There was nothing I could do. One just walked on. And, on the way back, I would see a vague human form covered with snow on the spot where, in the morning, I had seen a man fall down.

One didn’t worry; what was the good? People didn’t wash for weeks; there were no bath houses and no fuel. But at least people were urged to shave. And during that winter I don’t think I ever saw a person smile. It was frightful. And yet there was a kind of inner discipline that made people carry on.

-A survivor of the siege

This horror cost the lives of a million Leningraders, and tour guides will be sure to point out the physical scars still to be seen.

But the city never fell, and its resistance wrote one of the 20th century’s awe-inspiring monuments to human perseverance. Dmitri Shostakovich, caught in the city himself, composed one of the Great Patriotic War’s most famous musical anthems, defiantly performed by the Leningrad symphony itself during the actual siege, and broadcast on Soviet radio and around the world.

One result of a city’s being carved away from its country — and of consequence to this date’s victims — was that it put Leningrad on increasingly autonomous footing.

Voznesensky, who literally wrote the (incautiously heterodox) book on The Economy of the USSR during World War II

And as the war receded, the men who administered Leningrad were left with an unusual scope of action … bolstered by their recent reputation for anti-fascist heroism. The so-called “Leningraders” had become an embryonic rival power center.

The Leningrad Affair corrected that unwelcome-to-Stalin development with a wholesale purge. While the Soviet judiciary harvested the most illustrious heads on this date — economist Nikolai Voznesensky, Party bigwig Aleksei Kuznetsov — Michael Parrish observes in The lesser terror: Soviet state security, 1939-1953 that

[t]he executions of October 1, 1950, were only the tip of the iceberg … The Leningrad Affair probably claimed more than 1,300 victims, including over 100 who were shot, nearly 2,000 people who were dismissed, and many arrseted.

This day’s victims (though not all those persecuted) were officially rehabilitated during the Khrushchev era; responsibility for the Leningrad Affair even served to condemn one of its authors, NKVD torturer Viktor Abakumov, to death in the 1950s.

But compared to the corpse motel of 1930s USSR, this purge was distinctly small potatoes. One of its survivors — a man who could easily have been condemned on the same evidence that doomed the likes of Kuznetsov — was politician Alexei Kosygin, later to emerge as one of the USSR’s leading liberalizers in the 1960s and (in the words of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau) “the forerunner of Mikhail Gorbachev.”

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1938: Bela Kun, Hungarian Communist leader

2 comments August 29th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1938 — so the Soviet government finally announced in 1989, after decades of opacity — the Hungarian Communist leader Bela Kun was secretly shot by firing squad in the gulag.

The pudgy and pugnacious* onetime journalist whose capture by the Russians during World War I enabled him to get in on the ground floor with the Bolshevik Revolution became the de facto leader of the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic. For a few months in 1919, it was the world’s second Soviet state after Russia itself.

Bela Kun’s moment in the sun was particularly notorious for his advocacy late in the Soviet Republic’s brief life of a Red Terror against internal opposition. Several hundred people were killed over the last few weeks of the state’s existence, until a Romanian invasion toppled the reds and sent Bela Kun fleeing back to the Soviets. There, he’s supposed to have brought his gift for wholesale murder to surrendered White prisoners in the Crimea.

Still, Hungary was an insurrectionary success next to most everywhere else, and Bela Kun was detailed to Germany to revive the flagging fortunes of a revolution that the Bolsheviks thought would be critical to sustaining their own. Modeling on Lenin’s own coup d’etat in 1917, Kun pushed the Germans to go all-in on an aggressive 1921 “March Action” offensive to capture state power — which backfired catastrophically, essentially marking the end of the post-World War I revolutionary window. Vladimir Ilyich gave his Magyar counterpart a dressing-down for that gambit at that summer’s Comintern summit.

He’d become associated in this time with Zinoviev, an Old Bolshevik whose comradeship would blow an ill wind come the killing time of the 1930s. Kun himself was long past his sell-by date at this stage, knocking around Moscow feuding with other Hungarian exiles.

Stalin eventually had him arrested for “Trotskyism”, and he disappeared into the Gulag never to be seen again.

Like many purge victims, Bela Kun was rehabilitated under Khrushchev, which also made him fitting source material for statuary congenial to the post-World War II Hungary, situated (however unhappily) within Moscow’s sphere. Some of the detritus of this age can be found at Budapest’s Mememto Park outdoor fairgrounds of discarded Communist kitsch.


Bela Kun, marshaling the Magyar masses. The streetlamp behind him (a literary symbol of hanging) alludes to his martyrdom. Wider views of the entire monument: 1 | 2

* He had a rep in his youth for fighting duels.

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1570: Ivan Viskovaty among hundreds on Red Square during the Oprichnina

4 comments July 25th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1570, Russian tsar Ivan IV GroznyIvan the Terrible — carried out one of his most infamous and horrible atrocities with hundreds executed on Red Square.

Ivan the Terrible, by Viktor Vasnetsov. (Cropped image; click for the full painting.)

We find ourselves in 1570 almost a quarter-century into the reign of this complicated, frightening figure. It is the oprichnina, the bloodiest spell of Ivan’s authority: years of torture, purges, and political violence vividly symbolized by the tsar’s black-clad personal Gestapo, the oprichniki.

“Children of darkness,” the exiled noble Kurbsky called these dreadful Praetorians. “Hundreds and thousands of times worse than hangmen.”

A dangerous time to draw breath, but a particularly dangerous time for any boyar, men of the feudal nobility whom Ivan set his iron hand to mastering. This, after all, was the historical task of monarchs at this time, and it was everywhere accomplished with bloodshed.

For Ivan, having come of age an orphan at the mercy of rival boyars, it was a vengeful personal obsession.

Already stung by the defection — and subsequent nasty correspondence — of one such noble, Andrei Kurbsky, Ivan was downright paranoid about disloyalty during the long-running Livonian War against Muscovy’s western neighbors, Poland, Lithuania and Sweden.

Ivan became ever readier to equate dissent with treason and to ascribe his military reverses to conspiracies on the part of his aristocratic commanders, rather than to the shortcomings of his war-machine in general. A vicious circle thus emerged – of military failures; suspected treachery; the suspects’ fear of condemnation and liquidation, and flight abroad.*


The innocent have nothing to fear!

Taking it into his head that the ancient, rival city of Novgorod — one of the cradles of Russian civilization — was scheming to deliver itself to the newly-formed Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Ivan led an army there that in early 1570 massacred thousands of Novgorodians.**

He wasn’t done yet.

Returning to Moscow with his blood up, Ivan subjected his numerous Novgorodian prisoners to a savage regimen meant to uncover the extent of their nefarious doings. And it wasn’t long before the locals (who were, after all, just as suspect in Ivan’s eyes) got swept up in it, too. Politically-motivated magistrates with torture-induced confessions and denunciations did the dreadful things they always do.

This date in 1570 turned out to be the affair’s crowning carnival of barbarism.

“The Russian capital had seen many horrors in its time,” wrote Soviet-era historian A.A. Zimin (cited in this biography of Ivan IV). “But what happened in Moscow on 25 July, in all its cruelty and sadistic refinement, outdid all that had gone before and can perhaps be explained only by the cruel temperament and the sick imagination of Ivan the Terrible.”

Ivan Viskovaty (English Wikipedia link | French) had been one of Russia’s leading men on foreign affairs for a generation, as well as a longstanding ally of the tsar.

Nevertheless, he would be the first and most prominent victim on Red Square this date. Viskovaty’s rival Andrei Shchelkalov, who succeeded Viskovaty as the foreign affairs minister, neatly stitched up the senior diplomat for being in on the Novgorod “plot” as well as more exotic schemes to hand over southern cities to Turkey and the Khanate.

Historian Nikolai Karamzin related the scene (quoted here):

On July 25, in the middle of the market-place, eighteen scaffolds were erected, a number of instruments of torture were fixed in position, a large stack of wood was lighted, and over it an enormous cauldron of water was placed. Seeing these terrible preparations, the people hurried away and hid themselves wherever they could, abandoning their opened shops, their goods and their money. Soon the place was void but for the band of opritchniks gathered round the gibbets, and the blazing fire. Then was heard the sound of drums: the Tsar appeared on horseback, accompanied by his dutiful son, the boyards, some princes, and quite a legion of hangmen. Behind these came some hundreds of the condemned, many like spectres; others torn, bleeding, and so feeble they scarce could walk. Ivan halted near the scaffolds and looked around, then at once commanded the opritchniks to find where the people were and drag them into the light of day. In his impatience he even himself ran about here and there, calling the Muscovites to come forward and see the spectacle he had prepared for them, promising all who came safety and pardon. The inhabitants, fearing to disobey, crept out of their hiding-place, and, trembling with fright, stood round the scaffold. Some having climbed on to the walls, and even showing themselves on the roofs, Ivan shouted: “People, ye are about to witness executions and a massacre, but these are traitors whom I thus punish. Answer me: Is this just?” And on all sides the people shouted approval. “Long live our glorious King! Down with traitors! Goiesi, Goida!”

Ivan separated 180 of the prisoners from the crowd and pardoned them. Then the first Clerk of the Council unrolled a scroll and called upon the condemned to answer. The first to be brought before him was Viskovati, and to him he read out: “Ivan Mikhailovich, formerly a Counsellor of State, thou hast been found faithless to his Imperial Highness. Thou has written to the King Sigismund offering him Novgorod; there thy first crime!” He paused to strike Viskovati on the head, then continued reading: “And this thy second crime, not less heinous than thy first, O ungrateful and perfidious one! Thou hast written to the Sultan of Turkey, that he may take Astrakhan and Kazan,” whereupon he struck the condemned wretch twice, and continued: “Also thou hast called upon the Khan of the Krim Tartars to enter and devastate Russia:† this thy third crime.” Viskovati called God to witness that he was innocent, that he had always served faithfully his Tsar and his country: “My earthly judges will not recognize the truth; but the Heavenly Judge knows my innocence! Thou also, O Prince, thou wilt recognise it before that tribunal on high!” Here the executioners interrupted, gagging him. He was then suspended, head downwards, his clothes torn off, and, Maluta Skutarov, the first to dismount from his horse and lead the attack, cut off an ear, then, little by little, his body was hacked to pieces.

The next victim was the treasurer, Funikov-Kartsef, a friend of Viskovati, accused with him of the same treason, and as unjustly. He in his turn said to Ivan, “I pray God will give thee in eternity a fitting reward for thy actions here!” He was drenched with boiling and cold water alternately, until he expired after enduring the most horrible torments. Then others were hanged, strangled, tortured, cut to pieces, killed slowly, quickly, by whatever means fancy suggested. Ivan himself took a part, stabbing and slaying without dismounting from his horse. In four hours two hundred and been put to death, and then, the carnage over, the hangmen, their clothes covered with blood, and their gory, steaming knives in their hands, surrounded the Tsar and shouted huzzah. “Goida! Goida! Long live the Tsar! Ivan for ever! Goida! Goida!” and so shouting they went round the market-place that Ivan might examine the mutilated remains, the piled-up corpses, the actual evidences of the slaughter. Enough of bloodshed for the one day? Not a bit of it. Ivan, satiated for the moment with the slaughter, would gloat over the grief of the survivors. Wishing to see the unhapy wives of Funikov-Kartsef and of Viskovati, he forced a way into their apartments and made merry over their grief! The wife of Funikov-Kartsef he put to the torture, that he might have from her whatever treasures she possessed. Equally he wished to torture her fifteen-year-old daughter, who was groaning and lamenting at their ill fortune, but contented himself with handing her over to the by no means tender mercies of the Tsarevich Ivan. Taken afterwards to a convent, these unhappy beings shortly died of grief — it is said.

Thanks to this sort of wholesale purging, Ivan the Terrible became in the 20th century something of an allegorical shorthand for Joseph Stalin, whose own reign of terror was a touchier subject for direct commentary. By that same token, and capturing the multifaceted meaning of the word Grozny, (both awful and awe-inspiring) Soviet patriotic mythology co-opted Ivan and his allegedly farsighted cruelty as a state- and nation-builder.

Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible — a planned trilogy of films of which only two were completed, due to Stalin’s distaste for his greatest director’s interpretation — captures a view of Ivan IV Grozny from the shadow of wartime Stalinist Russia. (The two extant films can be seen in their entirety on YouTube, and are well worth the watching.)

The more conventional take is that, especially by his later years, the guy’s tyrannical paranoia had metastasized enough to send him plum off his rocker. In 1581, that favorite son who had accompanied Tsar Ivan to Novgorod, and to Red Square on this date, piqued his father’s rage during an argument — and in a fury, Ivan struck him dead.


Detail view (click for the full, gorgeous canvas) of Ilya Repin‘s emotional painting of Ivan the moment after he has mortally wounded his son. Incited to his own act of lunacy by the tsar’s riveting madman expression, iconographer and Old Believer Abram Balashov slashed these faces with a knife (image) in the Tretyakov Gallery in 1913.

The capable young heir’s senseless death effectively spelled the end for Russia’s Rurikid Dynasty descended from the half-mythical Norse founder of Rus’, Rurik. That argument from order and progress in favor of Ivan’s ferocity inconveniently runs up against the fact that what he actually bequeathed to the next generations of Russians was the rudderless, war-torn Time of Troubles, when rival claimants struggled for the throne.

Ivan IV is sure to remain a controversial, compelling figure for many a year to come. Released just a few months ago as of this writing, and in a time when Ivan comparisons are coming back into vogue for the ominous contemporary Russian state, Pavel Lungin’s Tsar (review) mounts a gory critique of its subject.

* Jonathan Shepard, book review in The Historical Journal, vol. 25, no. 2 (June 1982).

** Novgorod by 1570 was not as important as it had once been, but Ivan’s sack massively depopulated the city, essentially destroying its remaining strength as an independent commercial center.

† The allied Ottoman Turks and Crimean Khanate did in fact devastate Russia (and pillage Moscow) the very next year.

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1939: Stanislav Kosior, Vlas Chubar and Pavel Postyshev

6 comments February 26th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1939, a couple of “New Bolsheviks” recently flying high after helping purge the Old Bolsheviks had their own reversals of fate culminate with a bullet to the head.

Stanislav Kosior* (or Kossior), a Pole who ran the Ukrainian Communist Party for much of the 1930’s, and Vlas Chubar, a Ukrainian politburo member who had once served as Prime Minister, were shot this day along with Pavel Postyshev,** once Stalin’s personal representative to the Ukraine.

Left to right: Kosior, Chubar, and Postyshev — the first and last on post-rehabilitation Soviet stamps.

Though these obviously died because of parochial party politics under the terrifying reign of Stalin — and all were accordingly rehabilitated after Stalin’s death — posterity has another bone to pick with them: the Ukrainian famine known as the Holodomor.

Their portfolios included carrying out the forced collectivization to which the famine is generally attributed. Participation was strongly encouraged.

“Join the collective farm or else off to the Solovets Islands.”

Chubar

It was a grim time: starving peasnts dared not touch collectivized foodstuffs slated for use elsewhere on pain of execution themselves.† (Kosior won the Order of Lenin for his achievements in agriculture.) These Soviet VIPs themselves faced very similar pressure to implement Moscow policy and party line with exactitude … and very similar consequences for any perceived failure. (Kosior, too steely to succumb to torture, finally broke when his captors raped his teenage daughter in front of him.)

State organs adapted to the fall of these powerful men with Orwellian aplomb. “Radio Kosior” was renamed “Radio Kiev” overnight with its namesake’s arrest. Secret police chief Lavrenty Beria personally expropriated Chubar’s dacha. And

there is an account of a case in the Ukraine in which fifty students were charged with forming an organization to assassinate Kossior, who had been named as one of the senior intended victims in the great Moscow Trials. A year’s work on this case, which was a structure of great intricacy, had been performed by the interrogators. In 1938, however, it became known that Kossior himself had been arrested as a Trotskyite. Everyone thought that the students would be released. But a new interrogation immediately started, and they were beaten up for having lied to the NKVD. After a few days, the stool pigeons in the cells let them know what they were supposed to confess this time. It was to change their deposition, putting the name of Kaganovich for that of Kossior. The NKVD could not face the trouble of constructing a completely new fabrication. Finally everything was in order, and the students were sent off to labor camps.

A Ukrainian court recently named Kosior, Chubar and Postyshev among eight individuals personally responsible for the Holodomor.

* When Kosior was assigned to Moscow in 1938, he was replaced in the Ukraine by a good friend: future Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. (According to Nikita’s son.) To judge by the ferocity and extent of the purges Khrushchev oversaw, he took to heart the lesson from his predecessors’ fall.

** But on the plus side, Russians’ and eastern Slavs’ (continuing) tradition of putting up New Year’s trees in at least partly attributable (Russian link) to a Postyshev epistle to Pravda in 1935 calling for same. (The New Year’s yolka was a religious/tsarist tradition that had been discontinued after the Russian Revolution, but like many such cultural artifacts proved amenable — with Postyshev’s nudging — to secular/Communist reappropriation.)

† The nature of the Holodomor is the subject of furious present-day wrangling: can the mass starvation accurately be classed as a “genocide”? Especially given that such a finding could expose Russia and/or Russians to legal liability, there’s something of a difference of opinion on the matter between Kiev and Moscow.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Politicians,Posthumous Exonerations,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,Ukraine,USSR

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1953: Lavrenty Beria, Stalin henchman

6 comments December 23rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1953, Stalin’s feared minister Lavrenty Beria was shot — finally on the receiving end of the cruelty he had administered to countless Soviet citizens.

Lavrenty Pavlovich was, like Stalin, a Georgian peasant, albeit one generation younger.

He won his way into Stalin’s confidence from the 1920’s, and in 1938 replaced Nikolai Yezhov as head of the KGB predecessor NKVD. Yezhov did much of the bloody work of the Great Purge, and was himself in turn purged. The cunning Beria must have taken note.

Though his initial project was to clean up the excesses of the Yezhovshchina — releasing thousands of innocent convicts, making the gulag camps less homicidal and more effective and keeping prisoners alive long enough to get some work out of them, that sort of thing — it wasn’t long before Beria cast a terrifying shadow of his own. (Beria was Yezhov’s deputy, so it’s not like he walked into the job without the requisite qualifications for mass murder.) He wrote the memo proposing the execution of Polish officers that led to the Katyn massacre.

To the more everyday repressive operations of the Soviet secret police, Beria added his notorious (perhaps propagandistically exaggerated?) personal peccadilloes: nothing to trouble the boss, just a little penchant for seducing, or raping, and at his pleasure murdering, comely young lasses.

Soviet author Sergei Dovlatov sketched his character in this imagined vignette (translated by Executed Today friend Sonechka from the Russian original here):

As is well known, winsome high school girls were delivered to Lavrenty Beria’s house. Then his chauffeur presented a bouquet of flowers to the next victim. And rendered her home. This was an established ceremony. Suddenly, one of the damsels became unruly. She began to struggle and scratch. In short, held her ground and did not succumb to the charms of the Internal Affairs minister. Beria told her:

-You can leave.

The young woman descended the stairs. The chauffeur, not expecting such a turn of events, handed her over the prepared bouquet. The girl, somewhat more composed now, addressed the minister who was standing on the balcony:

-You see, Lavrenty Pavlovich! Your chauffeur is more courteous than you are. He gave me a bouquet of flowers.

Beria sneered and dully uttered:

-You are mistaken. It is not a bouquet. It is a funeral wreath.

More consequential for his fate was his position among the handful of Stalin’s closest associates, in which capacity he maintained himself for a remarkably extended period of time. This made him one of the people with a shot at succeeding Stalin, which in turn put him in the middle of the furious political infighting Uncle Joe was pleased to subject his subordinates to.

And the natural enmity between sovereign and heir — the one whose interest is the other’s death — may have even led Beria to poison Stalin in March 1953 when he was on the verge of a falling-out himself. Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (he of the pact, and the cocktail) remembered in his memoir Beria boasting after Stalin’s sudden and mysterious death,

“I did him in! I saved all of you!”

Briefly the official #2 man in the post-Stalin state, he would again preside over a political liberalization that belied his monstrous personal reputation.

But this pallbearer of Stalin soon followed his former master to the grave. Outmaneuvered by rivals Nikita Khrushchev, Georgy Malenkov, and Molotov, Beria was purged as a traitor in the summer of 1953 and secretly executed Dec. 23, 1953 with six confederates after a summary trial before the Supreme Court. (One of the expedients laid at his feet in that affair was a set of executions he had ordered in a 1941 purge).

According to a chapter by Michael Ross and Anne E. Wilson in Memory, Brain and Belief, after Beria’s fall, subscribers to the Great Soviet Encyclopedia

were instructed to destroy the article on Beria and were provided additional information on the Bering Strait to fill the gap in the pages.

Beria’s heirs actually applied to the post-Soviet government for a reversal of the conviction under laws granting victims of politically motivated prosecutions right of redress. The Russian judiciary turned them down.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Infamous,Politicians,Power,Russia,Shot,The Worm Turns,Torture,USSR

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1952: Night of the Murdered Poets

2 comments August 12th, 2009 Headsman

As night fell this evening in Moscow, 13 prominent Soviet Jews were shot in Lubyanka Prison on trumped-up charges of treason and espionage.

“The Night of the Murdered Poets”, as it’s come to be remembered, wasn’t so much about the poetry; “only” five of the victims fit that description.

But as Joshua Rubenstein put it, “only the martyred Yiddish writers are mentioned at August 12 commemorations; the other defendants who lost their lives, as well as the sole survivor Lina Shtern, are rarely if ever remembered, perhaps because their careers as loyal Soviet citizens do not fit comfortably into an easy category for Westerners to honor … Stalin repaid their loyalty by destroying them.”

Falling victim to Stalin was such a particularly tragic fate because they were, in the main, good Communists:* good enough to have been part of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, a World War II organ dedicated to rallying support for the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany.

Such national particularism — any port in a storm! — was all well and good when Moscow had the Wehrmacht at its gates and a short supply of friends, but it increasingly ran dangerously afoul Soviet officialdom as the 1940’s progressed. It was a bastion of sectarian identity rather than socialist universalism; its celebration of the Jewish soldier and of Jewish wartime travails cut against the narrative of Soviet sacrifice and heroism; its overseas links to the United States (where it toured in wartime) and the new state of Israel made it suspect, or at least vulnerable.

Thin excuse for mass execution, to be sure, but in a structure of generalized antisemitism run by a trigger-happy dictator …

In 1948-49, fifteen JAC members were arrested. One would die in prison; the aforementioned Lina Stern, a scientist, would receive a term of exile and return to Moscow when this purge’s victims were rehabilitated after Stalin’s death.

The thirteen others were tortured and condemned by a rigged (but secret, since many of the accused wouldn’t cop to public self-denunciations) trial

Years before his arrest, Markish would write words to make a eulogy for many a disillusioned Soviet citizen … and literally so in his case, since the verse was cited at his trial as evidence of his “pessimism”:

Now, when my vision turns in on itself,
My shocked eyes open, all their members see
My heart has fallen like a mirror on
A stone and shatters, ringing, into splinters.

Piece by piece I’ll try to gather them
To make them whole with stabbed and bleeding fingers.
And yet, however skillfully they’re glued,
My crippled, broken image will be seen.

* Naturally, being a good Communist did not keep one safe from Uncle Joe.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Entertainers,Espionage,Execution,Famous,History,Intellectuals,Jews,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR,Women,Wrongful Executions

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